Texas Ranger in progress: The attempted reinvention of Elvis Andrus

There’s no simple explanation for why the Rangers are in first place in the AL West. I mean, there kind of is, if you accept "they have the best record" as an explanation, but for explaining that record — it’s complicated. And the Rangers, of course, didn’t even look like a fringe contender for months. They’ve mostly come on strong since the All-Star break, and some of that’s because of Shin-Soo Choo. Some of that’s because of Adrian Beltre. Some of that’s because of a much-improved bullpen. And some of that’s because of Elvis Andrus.

This might be the easiest way to lay things out. You know Wins Above Replacement, or WAR? Famous statistic. Flawed statistic, but famous and useful statistic. Andrus, this year, has been worth 1.1 WAR. Here’s a neat little breakdown of that:

First Half: 0.0 WAR

Second Half: 1.1 WAR

It’s not that Andrus literally didn’t do anything in the first half, but if you’re looking for when he’s been valuable, it’s almost all about the past couple months. As he’s come on, the Rangers have come on. And though Andrus still hasn’t been a great hitter, he’s certainly been a lot better. He’s always been able to handle himself in the field. More recently, he’s been someone to pay attention to at the plate.

If you’re looking for something that’s changed, nothing too dramatic happened midseason. It’s incredibly difficult to work in big changes on the fly, with games every day, and midseason work is mostly about tweaks. Andrus, though, has been tinkering. He’s made little modifications to his hands and to his leg kick. He says he’s starting to feel comfortable. And that’s where it gets particularly interesting because the big change didn’t happen two months ago. It happened between seasons.

Andrus has been through a number of hitting coaches. So his swing developed changes over time, and his offensive productivity dipped. Before this year, Dave Magadan wanted to see Andrus pick one swing to stick with consistently. And he wanted to see Andrus sting the ball a little more, instead of so often slapping it the other way. In short: Magadan and Andrus wanted to see Andrus as more of a gap hitter. Less of a groundball hitter. Andrus remains a work in progress, but the signs of change are undeniable.

Below is a graph, with three lines, covering Andrus’ entire major-league career. The lines correspond to three statistics: groundball rate, pull rate, and pulled-groundball rate. So, you can see how often Andrus put the ball on the ground, how often he pulled the ball toward the left side, and how often he pulled his grounders toward the left side. That last one is a less obvious statistic, but I like the way it can indicate swing changes. Swings tend to have their own pulled-grounder rates, and if you don’t make a swing change, your pulled-grounder rate shouldn’t change very much.

Enough of that; time for this:

There you see Andrus, every season. Obviously, this doesn’t split between halves or anything — this year’s first half is mixed right in with this year’s second half. But look at what there is to see. Start with groundball rate. Why not? Andrus used to hover in the mid-50s, sometimes brushing close to 60%. This year, there’s a big drop, with Andrus now putting fewer than half his balls in play on the ground. Out of 227 qualified players to have gotten enough playing time in each of the past two seasons, Andrus’ groundball-rate drop is the third-biggest in baseball, behind a couple of Dodgers.

Now move on to pull rate. Rookie Andrus pulled a decent amount of baseballs, but he dropped off from there. He spent most of his career in the mid-30s. Now this year he’s up past 40%. Again, we can examine that same pool of 227 players who played enough the past two years. Andrus has increased his pull rate by nearly 11 percentage points. It’s the biggest such increase in baseball. No one has changed more in this regard.

Finally, the related-but-different grounder-pull rate. Andrus used to stay around the mid-40s. That is, fewer than half of his groundballs were pulled toward left field. He had a swing frequently geared to go up the middle or the other way. Now this year, he’s at almost 60%. Once more, that’s the biggest such change in baseball, between 2014 and 2015. Not long ago, Dave Cameron wrote here about Matt Carpenter trading some contact for power. Carpenter is No. 2 on this list, behind Andrus. Carpenter, clearly, has made a more concerted effort to pull the ball in the air with authority. A side effect of that is also more pulled grounders. So it is with Carpenter, and so it is with Andrus. That something has changed goes without question.

Of course, there’s no getting around the fact that, overall, Andrus’ offense hasn’t gotten better. Include the first half and his season numbers look strikingly similar to last season’s numbers. He does have a career-high seven home runs, but that’s sort of damning with faint praise; Andrus hasn’t been on fire since altering his swing and approach. He was a relatively unhelpful player for a number of months. Only more recently has he joined the Rangers’ parade.

But then, perhaps it makes sense to be patient. Perhaps it makes sense that it took Andrus some time to find himself. Perhaps recent Andrus is an indication that he’s getting familiar with this, comfortable with this, and that he’ll be a decent hitter going forward. He chose a gap-power swing, but that isn’t how he built a career, so it can take some getting used to. Andrus isn’t a little man. There should be some power in there. And it has been a better second half, by any metric. Contact quality has been there, and he hasn’t even sacrificed contact ability.

We’ll just have to see where this goes for Andrus. The talent is there, he’s only 27, and the recent signs are good. The bigger-picture signs are less positive, but what Andrus was doing before wasn’t working, so it made sense for him to mix things up somehow. This is a man getting paid a lot of money for a lot of time, and he became someone you thought about as a potential salary dump. His career was headed in the wrong direction, and now there’s again a glimmer of hope, with Andrus finding some more consistent offensive success. Could be, this is a mirage, and Andrus is actually better off trying to go to center and right. But he should be strong enough to hit with pop. Lately, the pop has been there. Elvis Andrus, the hitter, has been reinvented. Reinventions aren’t always improvements, but the intentions, at least, are usually good.